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The Theremin Journey of Eric Ross

Eric Ross at Guggenheim Bilbao
Eric Ross at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

Eric Ross is a composer and performer on guitar, keyboards, and the theremin. He began studying piano at the age of seven under Jean Krantz-Thomas, and, about ten years later, he started to write his own compositions. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Eric studied guitar and attended the electronic music composition course with Charles Dodge at Columbia University. In 1972, he finished college and began his career as a musician by playing and attending recording studios. In 1976 Eric began playing the theremin and, the following year, he felt confident enough to play his music exclusively. In 1982 he released his first album, Songs for Synthesized Soprano, and performed in concert at the Lincoln Center in New York.

It was the beginning of a musical career that led Eric Ross to perform in prestigious venues and musical events worldwide, such as Kennedy Center, Disney Center LA, Newport Jazz Festival, Berlin, Copenhagen, Montreux, North Sea Jazz Festivals, among many others. He also performed on radio, film, and TV. His Ensemble featured jazz giants John Abercrombie, Larry Coryell, Andrew Cyrille, Oliver Lake, Leroy Jenkins, new music virtuosos, Youseff Yancy, Lydia Kavina, Robert Dick, among others.

Also important was the artistic partnership that Eric created with his wife, Mary Ross, a visual artist. Together the two gave life to memorable multimedia performances during which music was intertwined with images, video projections, and dance. Their “Ultimedia Concept” has been presented at UNESCO World Heritage sites such as Guggenheim- Bilbao Museum, Spain; Residenz Palace, Wurzburg; Bauhaus- Dessau, Germany; Casada Musica, Portugal.

Since 1976 Eric has explored the theremin as a means of artistic expression, perfecting the playing technique and writing music for the theremin that revealed the instrument’s potential in a new and original light. Among the many pages of thereministic music springing from his pen, it is worth mentioning an Overture for 14 Theremins. In 1991 he played on the world premiere of Percy Grainger’s Free Music No.1 in New York. Eric Ross was a friend of theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore and synthesizer inventor, Robert Moog. Also, In 1991, he met and played for the inventor of the instrument, Professor Lev Termen. From these three giants, he drew inspiration to continue developing the theremin as a voice in his compositions.

Saggini: You started playing the theremin in 1975; it’s been a long journey! How did you find out, and how did you get it? How did you learn to play it? Finally, given that the theremin is just one of the instruments that make up your vast sonic palette, what prompted you to add the theremin to your musical arsenal?

Ross: In 1975, I had one built from a kit from South West Texas instruments by engineers at the Experimental Television Studio in Binghamton, NY, an important center for artists and technology. I had been working with synthesizers, and the theremin seemed a natural extension. I realized it was difficult to play, but I worked with it to where I could.

Eric Ross Selected Recordings

Eric Ross Electronic Etudes Op. 18 Songs For Synthesized Soprano Op. 19

Electronic Etudes Op. 18. Songs for Synthesized Soprano. (Op.19)
Doria Records New York. (ER-103)
Album Cover Photo: Mary Ross. Grammy Award: Roger Gorman, design. 1982.

Eric Ross Boulevard DReconstructie Op.54 CD Music for Theremin and Ensemble Tyava Music

Boulevard D’Reconstructie (Op.54). Music for Theremin and Ensemble
Tyava Music. CD (ER-107)
Photo: Mary Ross.

Eric Ross Chamber Suite Op. 43 Overture for 14 Theremins Op

Chamber Suite (Op. 43). Overture for 14 Theremins (Op. 47)
Tyava Music. CD (ER-106)
Eric Ross solo with U.S. and European ensembles featuring Youseff Yancy, Lydia Kavina, John Abercrombie, Andrew Cyrille, Byard Lancaster, and the Berlin Jazz Festival Orchestra.

Eric Ross Music from the Future

Music from the Future for Theremin and Ensemble
Eric Ross Avant Garde Ensemble. Eric Ross: theremins, MIDI guitars, keyboards, vocals. Trevor Pinch: Moog Synths. Peter Rothbart: EWI, saxes. John Snyder: digeridoo, waterphone, theremin, vocals. Jason Smeltzer: Theremin. Eric J. Roth: lute, guitar. Joe Perkins: bass. Atsuko Yuma: voice, dance. David Ross: Guitar. Mary Ross: Synthesized Soprano. Multi-track Remix: Eric Ross Studio NY.

In 1982, I played it on my album Songs for Synthesized Soprano. (Doria Records New York City ER-103) I put it through Moog III and Model 10 Synths, with tape and analog delay, wah, ring modulator, frequency shifting, full-wave rectifier, etc.   

The theremin blended well in the mix. The soprano voice also went through the Moog Series III synthesizer, with classic tape studio manipulations, backed by electronically processed instruments, Balinese and Javanese gender, trumpet, bassoon, synthesizers,  percussion, guitar, and prepared piano.

The Soprano Songs portray complex, varying psychological moods and states of being. The processed voice is used as timbre, color, texture, and for its emotive and expressive qualities. The entire cycle of songs is unified by the presence of derivations from a single tone row. The row is presented in each song and developed through variation forms.

The album did well in sales, reviews, and airplay. A number of musicians picked up on it, including Pierre Boulez, Miles Davis, BB King, John McLaughlin,  Clara Rockmore, among others. The Theremin and electro-acoustic ensemble was rare at that time. This album has since become a classic and collector’s item.

Saggini: Before you met the theremin, you had already tried your hand at composing electronic music. I would like you to tell us how your encounter with the synthesizer and your related studies came about.

Ross: I worked in a classic analog Studio at Binghamton University, NY, in the 70s and 80s with Moog Model III and Moog 10 Synthesizers. The Moog synths allowed entry into a world of electronic sound, and with reel to reel 4, 2, and mono tape decks, mixers, amps, and speakers, it formed a good basic studio. I also worked at Atlantic Records, Fairlight Studios, and PASS Studios in New York City at that time. In Europe, I recorded for West German Radio, Radio France, Belgian RT and met Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Goeyvaerts, among others. I had a residency at IPEM in Ghent, Belgium, and composed music for a dance commission. For a final mixdown, I had several Moog synths and Theremins on 18 two-track tape decks running simultaneously to montage the new piece. Never twice Same Color.

Saggini: After the synthesizer came the computer. Can you tell us what effect it had on your way of making music?

Ross: Mary was involved early in the 70s. She edited video to my music on her Amiga Computers.  I was involved in acoustic and electronic instruments, and quickly accepted computer use, especially in recording studios. I worked in the 80s and 90s with Clive Smith of Fairlight Computer synths in NYC.

Saggini: Your training is classical but, perhaps due to a certain propensity for contamination, you have been defined by the press from time to time as a “composer of contemporary classical music,” “electronic music composer and performer,” “‘switched-on classicist,” “avant-garde musician,” “jazz musician,” “master of the theremin,” and many other labels. Which of these labels, if any, do you find more fitting?

Ross: These terms help people understand. The music itself tells the story. I don’t think about labels, I do what I do, the best way I can.

Saggini: Besides the theremin, you play other instruments, such as the piano and the electric guitar. What is the closest instrument to your heart?

Ross: The Theremin adds a uniqueness and a lead voice to my music, so in that sense, it’s close to my heart. Piano was my first instrument, guitar the most demanding. Each instrument has its own solo voice, characteristics, techniques, and capabilities of expression.  

Expression without technique is inarticulate; technique without expression is empty display.   Basics are important. I started piano lessons at 7 with a foundation in the works of the Classical masters. First Live guitar concerts I saw were Bo Diddley and Jimi Hendrix. A Hell’s Angel gave me my first guitar at 19. I worked hard at it, had the sound in mind, and was able to transfer knowledge from keyboards. I met Jerry Garcia, BB King, Frank Zappa, among many other guitar players. After grad school, I got into Synthesizers took classes with Charles Dodge, Charles Wuorinen, Ezra Laderman, and others. My first Theremin in the mid-70s. MIDI and Computer software in the 80s and MIDI guitar in the 1990s. It was a matter of work to master each individually and then orchestration and choreography to perform them together.

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